Experts try to quell fears over rising meningitis toll

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Infectious diseases experts yesterday told anxious parents not to panic over the number of meningitis cases in recent months, which may be evidence of an "early winter peak" of the seasonal disease.

Yesterday the confirmation of further meningitis cases in Cleveland and Nottinghamshire were likely to add to parents' increasing anxiety over their children's health. However, the Communicable Diseases Surveillance Centre, in Colindale, north London, part of the Public Health Laboratory, said panic was unwarranted and levels "were within their expectations" for this time of the year.

A spokeswoman for the PHL said: "We anticipate recording some 2,000 cases each year. That equates to six cases every day." The centre said figures for the first 10 months of the year were roughly in the expected ranges seen over the last five years. Only a marginal increase in October's figures indicated the disease, most common in winter months, may have peaked ahead of the high normally expected in January or February.

More cases of meningitis - to add to those recently reported in Lincolnshire, West Yorkshire, Leeds, Glasgow and London - were confirmed yesterday.

It was disclosed that a second youngster had died, and six others were ill, in the latest additions to the cluster of cases to hit the North- east.

Four-year-old Reece McCawll, a pupil at Pallister Park Primary School in Middlesbrough, Cleveland, died last Friday. The second victim is a 16-year-old from County Durham.

Three other confirmed cases have also been recorded in the same county. The patients include a two-year-old from Peterlee and a four-year-old from Crook who attends a local nursery. A pupil from Parkview Comprehensive, and a 17-year-old student attending New College, Durham, are two confirmed cases from Chester-le-Street. A 12-year-old from Bishopton near Darlington is also one of the new cases.

Cleveland education department is now hoping that their public reassurances, given after the death of Reece McCawll, will stop pupils being kept away from school by worried parents.

In north Nottinghamshire, a 16-year-old girl from Rufford School, Edwinstowe, has been diagnosed as suffering from meningitis. A five-year-old from Mansfield has already received treatment for the disease.

Simon Kroll, Professor of Paediatrics at St Mary's Hospital, London, one of the UK's leading centres for the study of meningococcal disease, said: "Using the word 'outbreak' to describe what we are seeing is making a mistake. It is imprecise and has emotional overtones."

Most of the population acquire some immunity to the disease during childhood. However, in young children there is an increased risk. Adolescents also experience a slightly increased risk. The disease is classified as "seasonal" with normal peaks expected in the winter. Prof Kroll said "clusters" of the disease were part of its normal behaviour.